Terry Riley: On Just Intonation Melodic Inflection And The Spiritual Source Of Music

Melodic Inflection and the Spiritual Source of Music
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[This article originally appeared in the July 1986 issue of Keyboard magazine. We are presenting it today in honor of Terry Riley's 81st birthday.]

MORE THAN TWENTY YEARS have passed since Terry Riley's epochal composition In C set the musical wheels spinning toward what we know today as minimalism. Through the ensuing two decades he pursued his vision of purity in sound through study with Pandit Pran Nath, a North Indian master of kirana singing. By blending Pran Nath's instruction with his own knowledge of European classical music, Riley has evolved an idiosyncratic performance and composition style, often utilizing electronic keyboards that had been retuned to just intonation.

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That, in a nutshell, is the Terry Riley story. But, as the philosophers might say, even the smallest nutshell encapsulates its share of the infinite. And in Riley's work there is a taste of the infinite, a by-product of his efforts to enrich the structural language of the West with the spirit of the East. By turning our attention away from our ingrained theme-variation instincts toward the resonant mini-universe of overtones and pure intervallic relationships, Riley opens us to alternative concepts of musical experience.

He has done this in such works as Shri Camel (1980), Sunrise Of The Planetary Dream Collector (1981), The Medicine Wheel (1983), and his most recent recording, The Harp Of New Albion. On the latter, a double album scheduled for release in late May, Riley performs solo on a Bösendorfer grand, tuned to a pre-Bach system of just intonation in which the distance between intervals is based on the natural harmonic series structured from a single tonal center, as opposed to modern equal temperament, which slightly detunes intervals to allow for such new-fangled practices as modulation and transposition.

To the uninitiated ear, Riley's piano sounds alarmingly out of tune at first; partials beat mercilessly, an effect Riley sometimes encourages through modal improvisations against a tamboura-like drone. The root becomes a reference, emphasizing the clangor of seconds, sixths, and other imperfect intervals.

Gradually, however, a new perception grows. Particularly on "The New Albion Chorale," the longest selection, the beating between "dissonant" intervals emerges as a vital ingredient of the sound. In Riley's hands, the piano, that most European of instruments, seems reborn as a gamelan, speaking a musical language different from ours, yet conveying a tranquility that needs no translation. And when he allows a just third or fifth to ring for a few moments, it satisfies in a way that the thirds and fifths in equal temperament cannot. Though Riley is a master of the musical craft—literally, with a master's degree in composition from the University of California at Berkeley—it is such simple elements as a truly perfect fifth that move him now. The profundity of his understanding of Western polyphony and his facility at the keyboard are clear in "G Song," his contribution to our special issue on Bach [March '85]. But, he confesses, he devotes little time to even his favorite Western composer, Bach, now. Instead, he will marvel at single notes, sung faultlessly within microtonal systems, for their individual expressiveness.

Riley was born 53 years ago in Colfax, California. Jazz and classical music competed for his early attention. For a while, in the early '60s, he played piano and saxophone on club gigs in Paris and Scandinavia. Perhaps because of his jazz experience, improvisation became a central thread in Riley's music, a fact that in turn partially accounts for the sparsity of his scores. Even in his earliest pieces, he left lots of interpretive room for the performer. TheKeyboard Studies, which Riley began composing around 1964, anticipated Philip Glass and Steve Reich by several years in their use of thematic repetition as a motoristic device. But questions of when to introduce new themes, which keyboard instrument to use, even whether to play in solo or ensemble format, are all left to the player's or players' discretion.

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Studies with Pran Nath accelerated and clarified Riley's methodology by exposing him to intriguing new perspectives on the discipline of improvisation. In his first Keyboard interview (Apr. '82) Riley drew an analogy between Indian classical improvisation and Western jazz: "In the Eastern tradition, there's a lot of composition that's more like a jazz head; it's a statement at the beginning of the piece that you keep referring back to. The composition is like a perfect statement that completely manifests the feeling and shape of the raga. As you're singing you come back and draw on the composition . . . It's always there. It's like telling a story from many different angles."

Since In C, written for orchestra and premiered in San Francisco on May 21, 1965, most of Riley's compositions have been either for electronic keyboards, sometimes in combination with vocals, or for smaller ensembles. The Harp Of New Albion represents a return to acoustic solo performance. Because of its length and production clarity, it also highlights Riley's keyboard handiwork perhaps more than any previous album. In the past, tape loops and studio processing often melted Riley's organ and synthesizer lines into a larger, more liquid context. New Albion, conceived and performed on piano alone, therefore gives us an unusual insight into his improvisational process.

Riley, too, sees New Albion as a milestone in his keyboard work. His earlier work reached a culmination of sorts with Embroidery, an improvisatory work for ten voices and two Sequential Prophet-5 synthesizers. "Embroidery is probably the most successful attempt I made, from my point of view of an improvisational form," he says. "In it, I wanted to do an interaction between the keyboard parts and the voice, a kind of interweaving, where sometimes you would have a long keyboard solo and then the voice would pick up the mood. I still want to do that a lot, but maybe it will happen another way. I felt then that it was time to stop playing with the Prophet, even though there was still more work to do. If I were more than one person I could pursue it, but I don't really have the time to develop the electronic side of it."

One element in Riley's work that seems unlikely to change is his devotional approach to the mysteries of making music. As we began our interview, we asked whether he practiced yoga, in the same sense that one might study the art of performing or composing.

After a moment's thought, he answered, "There are fourteen forms of yoga, and music is one of them, so I guess you could say that I do."

—Bob Doerschuk 

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OUR MUSIC HAS OFTEN BEEN PUT in the same camp with that of Steve Reich and Philip Glass. What differentiates your music from theirs?
I think it would be safe to say that the works of Steve and Philip have been greatly influenced by my In C, which created the form of interlocking repetitive patterns. I, in turn, have been influenced by the vast static mystic spaces created by my longtime friend La Monte Young, whom I consider to be the founder of what is termed minimalism. As for the differences, one puts one's life experiences in one's music, and how we each sound is how we are. Since I was born in the sign of Cancer, I can be attracted to many moods, and my music reflects this. But the strongest pull is toward the musical shamans. I'm an improviser, and like the archaeologist, I get my greatest thrill in the discovery; after the pieces are in the museum, I begin to lose interest. The main thing I've noticed over the years, especially with Steve, is that he's been interested in working with an orchestra or his own large group in a very disciplined way and getting his performance down in a traditional Western classical sense. My approach to performance has been one of letting things just happen as they grow on the stage. I really like to gamble on what's going to happen that night. Of course, it's easier to do when you're a soloist, which I've been most of the time. I don't have to depend on other people. If I did have a group, I couldn't take this attitude.

What other qualities do you feel distinguish your work as a composer?
I think there's a particular way ideas are developed, and possibly some melodic ingenuity, undoubtedly due to my varied background in classical, jazz, contemporary, and Indian classical musics. One thing that is peculiar to what I do is the way I blend these different elements. A lot of intersections between these musics occur in my mind. As I'm writing or playing something like a raga, suddenly a kind of ragtime motive might come into it. If I'm playing at the keyboard, I'll express that idea, or try to show through a raga how it could be done with another phrasing or another feeling. I think this is an aspect that makes my music interesting to people.

Are you still writing pieces in just intonation?

I'm mainly working in just intonation. I'm writing an evening-long string quartet for the Kronos Quartet called Salome Dances for Peace. I've finished Part One; it's 40 to 45 minutes long. Part Two will be finished later this year. This was a commission from IRCAM [the Institut de Recherche et Coordination Acoustique/Musique in Paris]. This piece is not in just intonation, but parts of it are written from improvisations I did on my piano, which was tuned in a five-limit system of just intonation. [Ed. Note: The five-limit system means that the piano is tuned only up to the fifth partial. All the intervals of the scale are tuned with combinations of just fifths and just thirds, the just fifth being the third harmonic.] In the process of the Kronos learning it, I'm introducing just intonation little by little, so that they can get one set of intervals at a time.

How are you doing that?
Well, when you're playing fast, who knows what kind of accuracy you're getting? La Monte Young said, "Tuning is a function of time." In order to really hear intervals, you have to hear them long enough to establish their periodicity. So what I'd do with the Kronos is work just intonation into a section where the notes are sustained long enough so they get to really recognize the intervals.

Does improvisation continue to play a major role in your performances?
Oh yes, I can't help it. I can't play things straight from a score without making some changes. This is why I didn't end up being a classical musician.

What kind of relationship is there between your improvisations and your written scores?
The only relationship that I can see is that I improvise a lot while I'm writing. I write at the piano. I sit and improvise until I get a series of musical developments going that will work, and then I figure out how to score it for strings. Improvisation, for me, is definitely a way of composing. I don't sit down and figure it all out in my headfirst. I don't have the ability to do that.

But on the Kronos projects you work mainly from written scores?
Right. The scores that I've given them are very explicit. They're just like Beethoven scores in terms of what I've given them to do with all the notes, rhythms, et cetera. But I started writing for the Kronos because, first of all, I am very interested in the potential of string music in terms of pitch and phrasing. The other thing is that I knew with the Kronos we would have a lot of interaction after the score was written. So it was more like what I'd do for myself if I could play all these instruments. We've worked really closely; they've been up to the ranch many times, and we've had lots of hours of time together, so we know each other pretty well. They kind of have an idea of how I'm writing, and I have an idea of how they're going to play.

Generally, though, what are your feelings with regard to traditionally notated scores?
I don't feel that the notes on the page tell the whole story. I've always felt that way; I think everyone who has written music feels that way. Written music is what we have to work with as a form of communication, and if you can follow that up with personal contact and interact musically with people to at least establish the first idea of how that piece should go, then I think you can amplify your ideas beyond the printed page.

So it's your belief that the score is to a piece of music as a map is to a place?
Right. You may or may not find the location. I've found that with the Kronos I would write something out, and when they would play it at the first rehearsal I wouldn't recognize it. It can be that different. The notes can be true, but the actual kind of approach, the musical concepts, didn't get put into the notation. You can write a lot of directions to the music, but I find it's really better to have the personal contact.

Have you done any mixed ensemble work with the Kronos?
I've performed with them. The first three works I did with them actually all included parts for me. Remember This, O Mind, Sunrise of the Planetary Dream Collector, and G Song included either keyboard or vocal parts, but since they wanted to be able to perform them wherever they went, and I wasn't going to travel around with them, these works had to work as quartet pieces. We're planning a piano quintet.

What will that be like?
It will definitely grow out of the solo keyboard work that I'm doing in just intonation. All I have to do in working with them is find the way to making the actual pitch relationships familiar to them. For me it's easy; I press down the key on the piano. They have to find it on the string.

How do you notate for just intonation?
There is as yet no notation, but we have a frequency-tuning chart, which tells all the frequency relationships. For instance, we start on C# as a tonic note and all the relationships to C# are designated on the tuning chart. Once you've tuned, you can write it in normal notation.

What is it that appeals to you about just intonation?
It's a very simple point. Just intonation has to do with the resonance of notes, and when the simple pitch relationships are in just relationships they establish a resonance, which is something that can not only be heard but felt as a kind of aura around that note. It's a stability, a kind of motor running. You can hear the periodicity. It's very soothing, it has an atmosphere. The intervals are very appealing to the ear and the mind and the body. The trick with just intonation is putting the intervals together, because when you have just relationships you really have a thorny pitch situation. Some of the intervals are quite dissonant, not like the dissonance you get on a piano with equal temperament. Just intonation has real dissonance and consonance. You have some "howling" intervals that sound atrocious in just intonation.

Like what?
Some of what they call the "wolf" fifths, for instance, are really wild compared to what we're used to. The equal-tempered piano fifth is fairly decent; it's only a few cents off. The major third on the piano is quite out of tune: 14 cents off.

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Most of the other intervals—seconds, fourths—are fairly consonant, so we accept them as consonant intervals. I have three wolf intervals in the scale of the piece I'm working on now, and I've made a section in the piece called "Circle Of Wolves" that just uses these intervals. It's ferociously dissonant.

Which intervals are they?
In the scale I'm working on, the three sets are E-B, D#-A#, and C-G. I'm working in a C# scale.

Given the resonance and beauty of just temperament, why did Western music abandon it centuries ago for equal temperament?
What we're used to doing in Western music is usually a harmonic or polyphonic system of movements between the notes. You start out with a complex thing: three or four notes going to three or four other notes. In just intonation, the real beauty of the music almost can't be heard with a lot of simultaneous frequencies. That's why raga is such a beautiful science. Raga is dyadic: The old writings in India defined raga as one note against one note. You never have more than a dyad. What you have is one note stable—a drone—and one note moving against it, something like an oscilloscope shape moving over a fixed point. So just intonation in the hands of Westerners is problematic, because we're used to a dense texture.

You can't have just intonation and large harmonic structures that make sense?
In my experience, you can't. Here's the one law I've formulated—I don't know if it's Riley's Law or not: Melodic complexity is inversely proportional to the amount of harmonic or polyphonic movement or density of parts. What you have in Eastern or Renaissance music or Gregorian Chant is very ornate melody, but if anything starts to compete with that, it cancels out the effects of the melody. So in the West we opted for the drama, the harmonic and polyphonic complexity. That's great, but we're a little bit stuck at this point. Even though we're making all these incredible synthesizers, this is the only tuning system we're going to use.

From the perspective of Western music, two questions: What historical period do you feel closest to, and what Western composers have had the most influence on you?
There's no particular period I can point to in terms of my interest in Western music, but obviously Bach has had a big influence on me because of the polyphonic aspect of my work. I've played a lot of Bach and I've studied his music, trying to understand how his mind worked. I hold him above any musical mind I've seen in the Western world. It was so easy for him to get in touch with a higher power and continuously be inspired with great melodies and great contrapuntal ideas. Also, Beethoven had a great impact on me as a younger musician—I'm naming all the favorite flavors—because of the way he linked ideas together. That always fascinated me, how his ideas always seemed so natural. Each theme, as it came up and linked, always felt to me like an important compositional idea. I think some of that gets into my music, too. The next group of musicians I would point to starts with Debussy. Debussy's looking toward the Orient was my first look towards the Orient.

Chance is really important, because it recognizes or implies a certain surrender. Surrender is very important to a musical philosophy, because the musician is ultimately at the mercy of this muse at the time he's performing or practicing or whatever he's doing. He can develop an attitude of thinking, "I'm not the doer, I'm just receiving." He can get more in touch, and stay more in touch, with the higher powers. I think the greatest benefit people could derive from John Cage's introduction of chance into music is that one aspect of accepting what happens. John Cage himself has gone through many changes in what he viewed he could do as a composer. Sometimes he's felt that he didn't want to give people any directions, and now I've noticed he's writing more explicit things for people to do.

You see indeterminism as more of a philosophical than a musical process, then.
To me, indeterminism doesn't mean any particular kind of music. Anything could be happening. Western music has a tendency to codify and maybe become a little too rigid. John Cage is [a] good antidote to that.

What is your response when you hear an Indian composer explore Western forms, such as the concertos for sitar and orchestra composed by Ravi Shankar several years ago?
This is a question I would be more comfortable sidestepping, but I'll try to answer. I think it's obvious that pieces such as the Shankar concertos are not very important, because they don't represent a high standard of either Western classical or Indian classical music. Great performances in Indian classical music depend on the intimate atmosphere that allows deep introspection with an unhurried and peaceful unfolding of supremely beautiful melodies. Performed by a master, they can be full of the unexpected, but never calculating. I'm in favor of experimentation, however, and cross-cultural fertilization, even though most of the work won't ultimately have much significance. I feel music stays alive through the endless struggle to emerge into meaningful new forms. But the importation of Indian classical music to American shores cannot improve things. It was a perfect form whose golden age ended, according to Pandit Pran Nath, with the passing of many of the great masters around 1950. Fortunately, through Pran Nath, we are able to hear the timeless voice of ancient India. We probably have a parallel situation in the West, with no works being produced today that equal the inspired mastery of a Bartok or a Debussy. I don't consider these to be particularly great times for music, in spite of the enormous facility given by the technological evolution. Music is an out-pouring of the spirit, and the spirit is certainly being battered by the enormous noise of today's world.

Have serious attempts been made in India to investigate fusions of Western and Eastern styles, paralleling the work you've undertaken from your Western frame of reference?
I was at a conference in Bombay two or so years ago, East-West Encounter it was called. At this encounter they invited 20 or 25 musicians from all over the world who are involved in East/West ventures, either Indian musicians who had been writing Western music or vice versa, and there was really a lot of heated talk about this very subject. I brought some music that I had done, which was singing either on my own original texts or traditional writings. I was playing synthesizers and singing in a very melismatic and ornamental style, definitely influenced by my studies with Pandit Pran Nath. Though it wasn't raga by any stretch of the imagination, they felt that this was a dastardly thing to do to Indian classical music—not all of them, but some did, and it got very heated. But the very same people who attacked us were the most non-traditional of the Indian musicians, which was curious to me, because one of the people there, one of the Dagar family of very traditional Dhrupad singers, loved what I was doing. He thought it was very important for these things to happen, that music only lives through this kind of fermentation. If we don't absorb from each other, what can we say about our communication?

Are you involved in any such cross-cultural projects at this time?
Right now I'm heavily involved with a piano piece using just intonation. But I'd like to work with a small, improvisational group on some of the [cross-cultural] ideas I started to work with a few years back for synthesizers and voice. I kind of dead-ended on that because the synthesizer technology got to be too much for me to keep up with and keep my other writing going. So if I work again with electronics, I'll let someone else deal with the synthesizer, and I'll work on the compositional and performance aspects. The problem for me is that synthesizers today are changing so fast that you're always faced with owning something obsolete two months after you bought it. Even if you like the instrument, there may be other features that just came out on another instrument, which you also need to use. Also, I want to work in just intonation.

Have you done any work with computers and software?
I'm ignorant when it comes to computers, but I probably will through my children. I've got two boys in school, and they both have computers in the classroom. For some reason computers have escaped my experience so far and I don't know if I'm ever really going to get into them. My general direction these days is the practice of melody and swaras, and I don't need a computer.

What are swaras?
Swaras are all these different little pitch colors, the whole palette. We're not using all the colors available. It takes a long time to get to understand them. I've been studying Indian music since 1970, really quite a serious study. It takes a long time to understand the notes, how you can move the pitches. You have a melodic set of pitches that are allowed in the structure, which has to unfold over these pitches, and there are only certain paths you can take. To really understand this, because there is no score, you have to hear it over and over again. Then, after you've heard it, that's not enough. In order to be creative with it, it has to become part of you, because you can't just do what your teacher does.

In your previous Keyboard interview, you said that your teacher, Pandit Pran Nath, would sing part of a raga and you would sing it back to him. You'd think you were singing exactly what he had sung, and then he would show you how very different it really was. You were not yet seeing some nuances of what he was doing.
Right. There are shades of pitches, for instance, that are very difficult for Westerners, or even Indians, to hear. I've sat in on lessons with musicians in India, and it's not just us. It's such a minute thing that he'll sing two pitches in a row, which sound the same, but they're not the same. It may be that one pitch has a slightly different harmonic structure than the next, or the vowels might be slightly different, or the pressure of the breath.

Do you sing in just intonation as well?
In Indian classical music, yes. I don't sing Western classical music, except Beatles songs. [Laughs.]

How well does just temperament hold on a piano?
It depends on humidity, temperature, and how stable an environment the piano is in. Even in a stable situation, I really can't say.

Other things being equal, does it go out of tune faster than an equal-tempered piano?
No, but it's much more noticeable. An equal-tempered piano is "out of tune" all the time, and you accept it. With just intonation you're looking for those resonant, stable intervals. When you don't hear them, you know that something has drifted. Of course, it's always moving: You're dealing with an organic, temperature-sensitive thing.

What led you to tune your piano so that the root of its just tuning is C#?
Well, for many years I played electronic organ and synthesizers. While I was playing the synthesizers, I got together with Krishna Bhatt, who's a sitar master living in Berkeley. Krishna played in C#, so I started redoing all my pieces in C#. During that period I also started playing more and more piano. At that time I wrote the one piece that was the beginning of all the pieces I've done lately, called The Medicine Wheel. It was the first time I did this just tuning in C#, and I've kept the piano in that tuning to do both The Harp Of New Albion and Salome Dances For Peace. They're all done in the same tuning.

How do you handle modulations on a justly tuned keyboard?
There's a thing in Indian classical music called vhadi and samvhadi, which are essentially polarities of the scale. For instance, you can have a raga which is the C major scale and vhadi and samvhadi might be C and G. Another raga may be the C major scale and vhadi and samvhadi will be A and D. And you'll have a different sound because the polarities work around those two notes in the other scale. That idea has appealed to me a lot in modal music because most of the time when people use modal music, they just run up and down the scale. They don't see the structural ideas of how a scale can actually be used. So in the pieces I've been doing in just intonation, even though I'm in C#, there's a certain flexibility. For example, in The Harp Of New Albion, the first section would be in C#, using the scale Cb, Db, Eb, Fb, Gb, Ab, Bb. Then I'll gradually modulate into the next section, which may be D, Fb, Gb, A, B, or I'll just extract a different series out of that. Or if I do the same series, I might change the polarities of the two notes. I have sections from The Harp Of New Albion starting from several notes of the scale: There's a section in G, there's a section in D, a section in C#. Sometimes the D section will be a pentatonic scale with two notes in a certain polarity; the next time it might be a septimal scale with two different notes in polarity. That's why I'm still working on it after four years; I'm still finding new combinations. The piece is almost two hours long now.

It's like using part of a row.
Right. It's serial. Serial is nothing new; it's implicit in all. Once you've got a scale, you've got a series.

What kinds of pianos are in your studio?
I have two uprights. I'm hoping to get a concert grand piano, although one virtue of playing old pianos is that when I get to play a Bösendorfer Imperial Grand in concert, it's a rare experience. What I've found with piano music is I've had to develop a whole different system of piano playing than I would use if I were playing in equal temperament to enhance the melodic beauty of certain combinations and emphasize their resonant characteristics.

Different in what ways?
Less chordal for sure. I never was a big chordal player, but with just tuning it's even less. Of course, I haven't played in equal temperment for a long time, at least not publicly. One of the pianos in my studio is equally tempered, because I like to play some Western music, like jazz. So over the years, I've been developing a sense of what just intonation is, and I think it does take years. Most of the people who have worked with just intonation, like [composers] Lou Harrison, La Monte Young, and Harry Partch, have worked with it exclusively.

What advantages did electronic instruments offer you when you were working with them?
The one thing I miss in the piano that I did have in my electronic instruments was the sustaining quality. Of course, since I'm singing I can make up for that. If I wasn't singing, I'd find myself really missing that a lot. I did like the pitch wheel on the synthesizer being able to play these kind of intricate melodies. I spent a lot of time working on that with the Prophet-5.

Do you see the piano as a kind of dinosaur in danger of being replaced by electronic keyboards?
Well, so far in electronic music nothing has been invented which can replace the resonant qualities of the piano soundboard. Ultimately, all electronic music still comes out of a loudspeaker, so that when you're talking about electronic instruments, you're talking about loudspeakers that are producing the sound. When you sit in front of a piano and play, what you're experiencing is this resonance of the strings coming up from the soundboard. Anybody who's done that and will sit then in front of a synthesizer playing another kind of music—maybe even a string patch coming out of loudspeakers—knows it's a completely different experience. You can't replace a piano with that. So the piano's not a dinosaur. It's like anything that's been around a long time. Like the violin, it's undergone enough changes to finally arrive at a state where it's hard to improve upon it. You could do things like redesign the keyboard, and come up with keyboards that would play more notes, but it wouldn't essentially improve the piano. To me, musical imagination is the bottom line. The thing we spend our lives trying to develop as musicians is our imagination, the ability to dream and come up with ideas. They may manifest in electronic, they may manifest in acoustic, but essentially without that you don't move other people.

One of the things that makes you unusual among composers today is what one senses as a spiritual element or commitment in the way you make music. How conscious is this aspect of your music and in what direction are you trying to take it?
This is, of course, a problematic area. I think some of the most deeply moving music has been done by musicians who never even uttered these words "spiritual" and "religious," but also some of the deepest music has been made by people like Bach, who dedicated all his work to God. If you do feel really strongly, as I do, that every single great moment of music that's come through you has come through you literally, that it never originated in anything that you call yourself but actually just passed through, you can't deny the fact that music exists in its really most important form in the spiritual realm. Music, of course, is a physical body—resonating air, resonating molecules, and all these things—but that is also a spiritual realm. But I'm not trying to crusade with what I'm doing. I disagree with putting out the idea that I'm a healing musician, that my music is going to raise your kundalini. For one thing, I think all these things could come from a place of ego. The fact that some musics have almost an undeniable connection with spirituality, such as Indian classical music, makes me a little bit vulnerable in this one realm because people know that I do practice Indian classical music, so they always assume that it's a spiritual thing. Music takes me really out into some fantastic beautiful realm, but that's it. When it's happening, it's happening.

One musical parameter that has received relatively scant attention in the twentieth century is spatiality. After his studies at Stanford on FM synthesis, John Chowning worked on procedures and equations for moving sound around a given space using four loudspeakers. Xenakis in Terretektorh took a different approach by having the orchestra scattered among the audience in a circular space. Is spatiality something you have explored in your music, and if so, how?
I did a piece back in the early '70s with Arlo Acton which used speakers mounted on spheres that hung from very high ceilings. It was called Music With Balls with these big rotating speakers. We did it in stereo; I think we even did it in quad once so that people would be sitting around and these huge speakers would be swinging by you. But I feel that the power of music can reach you more deeply on its simpler level. Even though those things are interesting, it isn't ultimately the most profound way to experience the sound. It's like being in another environment, like seeing a nice sunset or being in a place where you're hearing the wind whistling through the pines, but I don't feel that it's something I want to spend my life doing. To get the music happening on a very basic level is the most important thing to me now. Just a few notes that are really effective, that's what I really want to do. Maybe that's part of getting older, that you really want to get the most effect with the most economy. Things like working with a thousand-piece orchestra, or working with four orchestras at the same time, don't attract me. When I was young, I thought those grandiose schemes were really exciting, and I think those people, when they are at that age, should create those things. At this point in my life, I want to get a deeper understanding of what the notes are themselves, and what makes them happen, to try to understand why they work this way. It's a very simple thing, but it's the hardest thing to achieve.

Apparently so, judging from the reluctance many people have to give just intonation a chance.
I find that some people have a lot of resistance to it. They'll hear it and say, "That sounds Indian."

What have you heard lately that turns you on? What do you listen to?
I have to point to La Monte Young's The Well-Tuned Piano. When I heard The Well-Tuned Piano at La Monte's birthday celebration, I realized that it was the first time I had really heard to such a dramatic degree the phenomenon that happens in just intonation, where you have the system of balanced, beautifully-tuned frequencies creating a very complex and beautiful and elaborate music in the overtones. Your mind starts focusing on this interior music that is not what he's playing. Of course, we've heard this with lots of pieces, but when I heard that I really wanted to go back and work seriously with the piano again. I saw so many possibilities in it. I think this is when I really decided to work seriously on my own piano, and by doing so I think I found that my particular piano technique and thinking produced something quite different from La Monte's that nonetheless worked for me.

Are you saying that because the ratios are rational integers, because it's in just intonation, that it sets up more resonances and that's why you're hearing more?
Yeah. For instance, you'll hear all the overtones on an equal-tempered piano if you play arpeggios and hold the pedal down, but the sound will be blurred. When you get them in just intonation, you get these very precise little melodies going on above, which don't get cancelled out by all the others.

You don't get all the beats.
Yeah, they actually come through. They're etched in the sound, and not only that, their effect, which is what really interests me, is a kind of primal sound which is so gripping it takes you back to your very basic life experience. Whatever you think of yourself on your molecular level, that music is it. It's the archetype of the spirit of man, and puts you back when you were doing your ceremonies and rituals around the fire. It's that kind of experience in music that's the deepest. I've always gone for that.

So being in tune really does have a profound meaning?
Yes, that's Pandit Pran Nath's main philosophy. It's called surma, being in tune. That recognition, that appreciation of the subtle frequencies, is an insight into music we need. I didn't know it when I was younger. I was always playing pianos without realizing why I didn't like one piano or another. But when you analyze it, the ones I didn't like were badly out of tune. Being in tune, putting total being and concentration in each note, living through each moment in music as a divine link in the ecstatic experience: These things are important to me now.

Terry Riley - The Harp Of New Albion -

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